issue 205 - March 1990
Photo: Peter Stalker
A secret visit to garment workers
dismissed by a British company
Lucy and I are squashed together into a motorized tricycle. She leans forward as we pass the police checkpoint so they can see her and not me. They wave us through.
We have entered the Bataan Export Processing Zone, a couple of hours' drive from Manila. Security here is tight. The Zone is surrounded by a high wall topped with barbed wire.
Lucy Salao works for a British company, the International Garment Manufacturing Corporation (IGMC). But since September of last year she and 600 other workers have been locked out. As a protest they take it in turns to live in a makeshift collection of shelters in front of the factory. I slip behind the cardboard screens and banners they have erected.
'A couple of weeks ago the Zone Police tore down the shelters and the streamers,' says Lucy. 'They said it was because it made the Zone ugly to investors and made them think that the workers here are militant.'
IGMC makes garments like winter coats and jackets which are exported all over the world - to the US, Canada, Australia and particularly to the UK where they are sold by such stores as C&A, Next, Littlewoods and John Collier with brands such as Fleet Street and Canda. The company came to Bataan for cheap labour. Export-processing zones like this are used largely for assembly: most of the raw materials are imported and the finished goods leave without really entering the Philippines at all.
IGMC have closed the factory here rather than pay a wage increase. The leading labour federation in the Philippines, the KMU (to which the union here is affiliated), organized a successful general strike last year throughout the country. This resulted in legislation which should have increased wages to about $7 a day.
'They say they cannot afford it,' says Lucy, 'but IGMC is the only company here which has not given the increase. When we demanded it they closed the factory. What they really plan to do is reopen paying low wages to non-unionized workers.'
I seem to have arrived at lunchtime. Louisa offers me a tasty plate of mongo beans. She is 37 years old. Her husband is self-employed and lives with their two children in another town.
'I'm usually on the picket line from 10am to 8pm. A lot of the time here we just sit around and discuss the situation - or we play bingo.' She has worked for eight other factories in the Zone, usually leaving as they closed down. Companies in export-processing zones are notoriously footloose. IGMC is saying it will transfer some of the work done here to Indonesia.
Only about 11 per cent of the 10 million people in the Philippines labour force are unionized. Strikes are permitted in the private sector - though not (officially at least) for public employees. But while the law permits union activity in principle, in practice trade unionists are given a hard time.
'Mrs Aquino isn't really committed to the workers of the Philippines,' says Lucy. 'She says we should fight for our rights. But when you do that you get harassed by the military. Our leader, the former chair of the KMU, was killed.'
Luz Burlas, a 35-year-old IGMC worker, has had her own experience of military intervention. She lifts up her shirt to show me a gruesome six-inch scar where a bullet had passed through her.
'It happened two years ago. Mrs Aquino said that we would get a cost-of-living increase. But when it didn't happen there was a five-day strike. There was a protest rally here which was broken up by water cannons. Then the army opened fire and I was hit. One child and a student were killed and many others were injured. I was in hospital for two months.'
Lucy, Luz and I walk out of the Zone through one of the back gates. If challenged by the police I'm supposed to say that I'm Lucy's pen-friend come on a visit. Fortunately the guard on duty today is one of the more relaxed ones and we can walk through.
We are heading for Mariveles, the fishing port next to the Zone where most of the workers live. We cross a wooden bridge with small fishing boats chugging out to sea beneath us.
'This,' says Lux, 'is the bridge where we were shot.'
Apropos of nothing in particular, Lucy asks me what I think of 'mail-order brides' - where Western men can choose a Filipina bride from a catalogue.
'What does that make you think of us? What reputation do our women have in your country?'
'We can hardly blame the women,' I say. 'It is the men that we don't think much of.'